The Art of Making in “Copies Without Originals”

My ongoing, time-dilated reading continues. Which feels, oddly enough, almost appropriate for encountering Morgan Swim’s “Copies Without Originals” over at the newly-premiered Translunar Travelers Lounge. After all, this is a story which is on one level concerned with the ways in which art itself stretches across space and time.

As usual for a wonk post, big hairy spoilers follow. Go click the link and read the story first if you want to avoid them. Then toddle on back when you’re ready. This will still be here.

Set four hundred years after the extinction of humanity, “Copies Without Originals” is the story of a robot museum docent still maintaining the art of their museum despite centuries of solitude. Solitude which is suddenly ended by the impossible appearance of a live human being in the museum.

It turns out our new human is themself a clone. Unsurprisingly, a story about a robot and a clone does a lot of good work of examining personhood. What’s got me turning this bit of shiny over and over, though, is the way that’s part of a multi-layered conversation about the intersection of personhood and art. Robot struggles to convey the proper context to clone to evoke the “aura” which good art creates for a viewer.

It’s important to note that both robot and clone are effectively nameless for the bulk of this quiet, intimate story. Both of them have designations which might serve as names, but neither of them feel a connection to those pieces of data given to them by others, so they individually choose not to share them.

The climax of the story hinges on our two characters both claiming names, though not-accidentally, each of them claims a name which is given to them by the opposite party. After seeing the robot’s multi-media piece, clone declares robot to be Art, a name which Art only accepts in the event that they can themself offer that clone is Aura.

It’s a declaration that’s deeply personal, a statement of vulnerable trust and respect and love and no that’s not dust in my eyes. Creating so much emotional resonance with two characters is wonderful all on its own. I’m not here to diminish it. I do want to also applaud the ways in which Swim tangles this intimacy with a broader cultural concern about what art is, where it comes from, and who makes it.

The answer to the last is “people make art,” but that answer, exemplified in Art and Aura naming each other, itself has multiple meanings. At its starkest level, people “make” art in that they are the fabricators of art pieces. They paint, sculpt, photograph, collage, charcoal.

But also, and definitely central to the thesis of the story, people “make” art insofar as art is the interaction of that fabricated work with another person. It’s a conversation, a symbiosis, a commune, a unique ecosystem all its own. Art is an expression of the individual, but it’s fundamentally not expressed at all without another individual who can give it meaningful context.

That multi-leveled paradigm of making art peaks when Art (the robot) declares to the clone who has just named them, “[I]f I’m art, then you must be my aura,” a statement which names Aura (the clone) in turn. The moment carries with it an implicit dependency: Art isn’t art unless Aura is there to be aura.

While this might be the moment of distillation, the story doesn’t just drop this scene out of nowhere, of course. It’s peppered with other moments which build to and bolster this one near the end. When our then-unnamed robot struggles to provide our then-unnamed clone with facts which can contextualize the pieces in the museum. When our clone asks if the people in a painting were “real” and our robot narrator iterates through the many paradigms they might intend for “real.” In the sculpture that comments on clone personhood and asks its audience to prove they can tell the difference between different kinds of glass which both look the same.

In, of course, the fullness of the text itself and the ways in which Swim uses it to create the Aura which creates Art from our interactions with it.

In the end, Art and Aura are people, a statement which, like “people make art” is both an intimate moment of connection between two people and also the microcosm of what art is in a way that’s more than a little trippy.

Embodied Art in “All the Gifts That Remain”

I continue to be hopelessly behind on my reading, so I’m only just now hitting Nicasio Andres Reed’s “All the Gifts That Remain” in Nat. Brut. Since I’m here, you’ll be unsurprised to find out I have caught some feelings about it. And as is often my way, I’m going to spoil some of it to scratch at them. So go read the story first if you don’t want the spoiling. I’ll still be here when you travel back.

Done? Sweet.

Feel one here is a whole lot about the technique at play. Ostensibly this is the story of a writer meeting and attempting to interview the enigmatic Anita Murthy, an artist best known for creating something called a body ship. The tension the narrator feels at landing this interview bleeds into a tension from the question of what the hell a body ship is and why it’s so important to both the narrator and, it seems, the world at large. It’s a purposeful tension, teased out into a proper slow burn. Reed turns away from that answer more than once, such that each time I wound up reading just a bit more frantically to get there. And when we get there, it turns out a body ship is just what it sounds like: a (space)ship shaped like a body.

This choice, to play out tension with a question whose answer is on the tin, could have backfired, could have felt like a let down, but it winds up being vital for me to the themes of the story, because “just” a ship shaped like a body both is and isn’t a simple answer, as it turns out. A proper body ship also seems to have interstellar travel capabilities unlike any other ship the world of the story knows.

Further, no one is clear on exactly why that is. Nevertheless, it is: if you embody your ship, the ship is itself empowered. There’s an elegance to the way the history of body ships works as metaphor for a number of elements. This is ostensibly the work of an artist, after all, such that I can’t help but feel the non-answers about what makes a body ship travel so far are tangled up in the equally inexplicable ways in which art has a power we can’t always articulate. The ways in which art both is and isn’t as simple as explaining its physical elements.

Beyond this, though, is the way in which Reed pushes body ships to explore our concepts of humanity. In a brief survey of the ships that have come before, we see that the power of a body ship isn’t restricted to any kind of body. Not a single shape, not a single size, not a single apparent age or gender or ethnicity. Every type of body ship has the same inexplicable power to span galaxies so long as someone chooses to use that body type to make a ship. So, yes, body ships are a metaphor for art, but they’re also a resonant, powerful metaphor for humanity in the simple-and-complicated sense of ‘who gets to be human.’ And by sculpting everyone in steel and rockets, the story tells us everyone, and here’s the receipts.

In the end I know, in that ineffable way the people of Reed’s story know body ships changed their own understanding of the world, that there’s even more at play here. An itch I can’t reach to scratch. Or a galaxy only a ship that is part body and part art (and each of those part of each other) can get me to.

While you weren’t looking, Jessica Jones snuck in a queer happy ending.

Without a great deal of fanfare (thanks to Netflix announcing its cancellation before even giving it an airdate), the last season of Jessica Jones dropped a short bit ago, and like with the previous seasons, I sat down to get myself a heaping helping of cranky Jessica vs her latest full-of-himself nemesis while navigating the prickly array of folks she calls family. I have thoughts on most of those folks, but I wanted to talk about one in particular, not least of all because I don’t think he’s going to get much critical play for all that I also think his place in the show provides something fairly unique in its history: unadulterated hope.

I don’t plan to dig into the larger plot of the show, but just in case: spoiler warning for details of Detective Eddy Costa in season 3.

Costa doesn’t have a great deal of impact on the master plot of the season. For the most part, he’s there to provide Jessica the occasional official/unofficial resource, and later to provide her an extra kick in the guilt. So why the fuck am I dragging my poor, neglected blog back into the light to talk about him? Because, for no reasons the story required, the showrunners decided to use Costa to provide the viewers with a taste of a queer character who gets a happy ending.

I honestly don’t recall if Costa mentioned his husband in his appearances in season 2 of the show, but he mentions him here in his first appearance of the run. Costa meets Jessica to have a discussion about their not stepping on each other’s toes while offering the occasional helping hand arrangement. Because this is Jessica, they’re meeting in a bar. Our aforementioned husband is mentioned in the very first glimpse at Costa’s arc, as the detective passes on joining Jessica for a drink, as he’s promised his husband to come home on time and sober.

In the noir world of Jessica Jones, where we rarely meet a relationship that isn’t rife with dysfunction, it would be easy to see this as a first hint of trouble at home for the detective: drinking problem, maybe? It wouldn’t be outside the show’s remit, certainly. And later, when Costa suggests he has a lot going on at home, we may assume that’s exactly where things are heading.

Except, we find out, the “things at home” are the equally stressful steps Costa and his husband are going through to adopt a young girl. A call from Jones interrupts the detective’s family in an emotional introduction to their potential daughter. Jessica, like possibly the viewer before now, assumes that when Costa says he has “a lot going on,” he’s talking about marital strife. He goes far enough to nix that assumption but — and here’s where I find things get interesting from a storytelling perspective — he never offers the correct details to Jessica. She knows the detective has something taking up his emotional energy in the domestic sphere, but has no idea what.

In terms of Jessica’s plot, she doesn’t need to know, of course. It doesn’t impact her one way or the other. Why, then, take the time to fill the viewer in? What’s the payoff here?

Further still, we hit up our detective later in the season, when he’s been placed on leave thanks to his allegiance with Jessica. For the average JJ supporting player, we’d get a whole lot of laying life’s unfairness at Jessica’s feet. Or at least a dour look at someone who’s life has been destroyed.

Instead, when next Jessica follows up to let Costa know she’s finally made things right, we discover Costa outdoors with, surprise of surprises, that same little girl he and his husband met over digital chat a few episodes prior. Once again, he takes Jessica’s call to do his duty to the plot at hand. And once again, he doesn’t mention the progress he’s made toward bringing a new child into his family.

In cold terms, Costa’s adoption subplot serves a purpose that television needs: it gives him a thing to be doing when Jessica interrupts. You don’t want your supporting players to go into robotic sleep mode waiting to be useful. This is why we so often find folks grabbing coffee or a hot dog or doing some gardening or any host of not especially integral business.

This isn’t coffee or hot dogs or gardening, though. This is a very specific something at play. It’s a queer family not only being a family, but building a family. This is hope and the notion of a livable future on a show where such things routinely paint a target on the subject. Costa, however, manages all of it. And Jessica doesn’t even know.

But the viewer does. The result of that, for me, is a subtle nod by the showrunners that queer people of Jessica’s acquaintance make plans that aren’t Machiavellian self-sabotage. That this very noir world with its very noir sensibilities, full of suffering abuse, has room for a happy little queer family. It’s not the rock anthem playout of the series’ final moment, but it feels like a tiny little triumph nonetheless.

Collective, Not Plural: POV in “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls”

Yes, I continue to be woefully behind in my reading. And yet I still have feels and WordPress hasn’t cut me off, so I persevere in spilling my brain-insides onto the interwebs when said brain-insides begin bubbling. This time, a fairly spoiler-lite discussion about Izzy Wasserstein’s use of POV in her March PseudoPod story, “The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls.”

A little setup just for context: the story concerns a group of girls being “cared for” (scare quotes entirely called for) by the Mothers, misshapen psychic creatures who are ostensibly keeping the girls safe from unnamed terrors outside their walls, but whose security comes at steep personal cost for their wards.

As stories often do, this one starts with a new arrival to the existing status quo. It would have been natural to choose that new girl (Bel) to be the story’s POV. Or, really, any of the other girls. What I find fascinating is that Wasserstein decided to do all of those things by giving us a collective first person POV (“we”).

I say collective rather than plural because it becomes clear as the story unfurls that who we’re hearing from both is and is not the girls. The first person aspect gives us a close POV, wherein we’re privy to emotions, but the collective aspect simultaneously distances us from any given girl whenever she acts as an individual. Bel, Jaq, Kate, Miranda, and Molly are only part of the POV when they are not taking action, or when their actions align with the group.

In a story where standing out seems to universally result in pain and torment, this inclusive yet exclusive POV is a constant addition to that tension. Whenever we see a name, that person is at risk, because for however long we see them, they’re exposed. In a horror story, there’s a secondary benefit in that the POV ensures no one is safe via metafictional armor; no one is required to continue telling the story, after all.

“We” also underscores the ways this story turns on group choices. Yes, individuals do and say things (often to their own detriment), but the crux of the story, the point of no return of it, is a moment wherein an individual action turns the collective will of the group. What “we” think and do is what changes the world for good or ill.

“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

New Story: If Only Kissing Made It So

“If Only Kissing Made It So,” my story about boys kissing and possibly time travel, is live at Cast of Wonders today, narrated by Max Gladstone.

Yes, that Max Gladstone. To say this was a pleasant surprise would be whatever is more under than under in understatement. I’m just saying: the email listed the narrator, and then I did a few double takes and at least one “wait, for real?” I did not do a spit take, because I am professional and have composure. And also I wasn’t drinking anything.

Also also: Gladstone knocks it out of the damn park. So.

It’s appropriate to get an awesome surprise as this story finally makes its way in the world, since that’s what this story was.

I’ve talked before about my decade and change of writing nigh-on-nothing. “If Only Kissing Made It So” is the primary exception. Before I finally managed to drag myself back into the thick of things, I made a largely abortive attempt several years prior.

Attempt is probably a mischaracterization. It suggests there was a lot of maturity and willpower. The first draft of this story was more what happened when my story brain crossed its arms and refused to eat anything because oh my god that is so groooossss, and I told it dessert was available if it would just try one bite of everything on the plate.

I pretty much never go into a story without expectations for what it might be, but this time I did. I sat down, set a timer for twenty minutes each morning, and wrote whatever the hell came out. I think the first day or so wasn’t even narrative. I vaguely recall things like “what am I even doing this is stupid” and “you will never write anything else, no you shut up” on those pages. Eventually, after much eye rolling and sighing and assorted other protestations from my story brain that it hated all of this and I couldn’t make it change its mind, we got to “If I’d known Lucas Medina had rung the doorbell, I would have thrown on a good shirt.”

No, that isn’t the first line of the story now, but part of that is because I had no idea what the first line was, because I didn’t even know what the story was. Lucas showed up, and there was awkward interaction and trying to tamp down on crushing and then, eventually, story brain looked up and said oh wait, what if we did this. And I tried not to smile visibly when story brain started eating like macaroni and cheese wasn’t the only acceptable meal.

As I mentioned, this wasn’t the triumphant return to regular writing it sounds like. When I finished the first version of this story, I subbed it to exactly one market. When that editor failed to marvel at the wonders offered, story brain went to its room, slammed the door, and sulked for several more years while Lucas and Marty sat abandoned on my hard drive.

Though, obviously, we did eventually reach a day when story brain came back out to play. And when it did, and Submit All The Things Dammit brain joined in, “If Only Kissing Made It So” got to see daylight again, and now it’s made friends with the lovely folks over at Cast of Wonders.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s not too late. click on over and join the loop.

Monsters On the Internets

So I fell off the wagon with doing story posts, but in a turn of good luck, “Drowning Joys,” from the second issue of Aliterate recently made its way to the Aliterate site, so for anyone who didn’t buy the issue, it’s new to you, which is an excuse I’m fine exploiting for some new wonk.

The origins of this one are, honestly, pretty simple: I wanted a story where no one wondered for a minute if that jerk who walks around telling people to smile was, out of the gate, the villain, because fuck that dude. The problem is that the story I started with wasn’t much of anything: smile-guy wound up eaten after asking the wrong person to smile, the end. Cathartic, sure, but it didn’t really serve as much more than some dark wish fulfillment.

But then I thought, well, what if smile-guy is the monster? I mean, all the smile-guys are monsters, but I mean the kind of monster entire cultures write warning stories about. A vampire seemed obvious (smile = teeth = fangs, you get the idea). And since smile-guys are a breed one hopes is maybe dying out, I wanted a monster that didn’t get quite as much pop culture play.

Enter Callum the Kelpie, sexy murder horse with more swagger than he deserves and a history of judging humans for failings he may be just as full of:

Still, when a wild stallion’s coat and mane are fine and strong and carry a whiff of the river far from shore, you’re courting death to touch his hide as well you are to eat dark berries when you can’t tell black nightshade from deadly. If you’re eager enough to survive, you learn the difference. If you’re not, then it’s hardly fair to ask the world to write clearer signs for you.

And by maybe I mean pretty much guaranteed. He’s still opens up with that damn “give us a smile” line, after all.